Director's Letter: Spring 2023

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.
—Albert Einstein

In Praise of the Mysterious

JOHN R. STOMBERG, Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director
Hood Quarterly, spring 2023

Art and science, while offering pathways to greater understanding, also tend to amplify the mysterious. The recent and amazing images beaming down to us from the heavens via the Webb telescope, like those from the Hubble before them, offer a case in point. These images bring us evidence of outer space. The famed Pillars of Creation, for example, which are mostly accumulations of ever-shifting gases and dust, can now be seen at a level of detail and complexity unimaginable just a few years ago. These images are created through the merger of art and science; the scientists at NASA first receive raw data from their equipment and then translate
that data into effective imagery by assigning color and density to the numeric information that describes what the telescope "sees." To make these images effective, the creators have endeavored to find aesthetic expressions of the data. The results are amazing. And yet, even as the photographs help us learn more about outer space, they also bring into focus the incompleteness of our knowledge.

Another fine example is the work of the seventeenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who titled her carefully rendered studies of insect life "The Caterpillars' Marvelous Transformation and Strange Floral Food." Despite carefully researching and describing the caterpillars' activities in minute detail, "marvelous" and "strange" were still the adjectives she selected for her magnum opus. Many times, as we work in science or art, we get closer and closer to our goal, all the while expanding the unknown aspects of what we seek to clarify.

As the old saying goes: the more we know, the more we know we don't know.

The Hood Museum's foray into the science of art tends not to eradicate mysteries so much as to enhance them. We may answer some questions—What is the name of this material? How long ago was that made?—but in the end, ambiguity accompanies meaning. It's a state of affairs that just seems to come with existence, whether approached through art or science. In either discipline, clarity only exists at the mundane level. As we enrich our quest and broaden our search, patterns of wonder emerge. In art as in life, we at the Hood Museum celebrate these mysteries even as we try to decipher them.


Written May 17, 2023